Review: "Soviet Operational Art – In Pursuit of Deep Battle"

You can find mentions of the Soviet/Russian concept of “Deep Battle” in many places, and when I recently learned there supposedly is a whole “operational art” behind that, I was eager to find out about it. I didn’t find any review of the seminal work on that subject, so here we go.
I can’t say that I penetrated all of the related work and history of reception for “deep battle” and Glantz’ work in particular, so I will judge only the book itself.

I hate it myself when people tell me about book structure in a review, but this one time, it is needed further down the road:

a) Foreword by General Carl E. Vuono
b) Preface by Christopher Donnelly
c) Author’s Preface

1) The Soviet Study of War
2) The Nature of Operational Art
3) The Framework of Operations
4) The Formative Years of Soviet Operational Art: 1917-1941
5) The Great Patriotic War and the Maturation of Operational Art: 1941-1945
6) Operational Art and the Revolution in Military Affairs
7) Refinement of the Revolution in Military Affairs
8) Perspective on the Future

This looks like a natural roadmap for tackling such a doctrinal subject, it seems. Now, what? Doctrinal subject? Hell, yes! Because different from what the term “operational art” implies, it is a figment, an illusion, not reality or history but a doctrinal stance. Put differently: This book does not deal with real warfare, but with soviet field manual texts. The term “operational art” is declarative term and might even be a translation “error”. This might be hard to grasp, but we will revisit this analysis result.

If we accept that the book itself is a survey of soviet doctrinal development, one must say that even for that purpose, the actual structure of the book is at odds with it’s “contents”. First, the chapters are cobbled together, and where not written specifically for this monograph. Just from the disconnects, verbatim & argumentative repetitions I’d wager that chapters 1-3 were tacked on later. A huge shame, because they have such promising names!

The greater and deeper shame lies in the articles themselves. The chapter title “The Soviet Study of War” leads one to believe that what follows will be an academic over- and review on the Soviet practice of war studies. But no! What we have here I could only understand after reading the whole book. Because the fine Colonel does not make his technique clear. I tell you what this is: It’s a synthetic (not even synoptic, which could have been worthwhile) translation of basic declarative statements from soviet sources. This is easier to grasp if you have experience with government documents in general, and communist ones in particular.

Although a natural phenomenon, war can either accelerate or retard the march toward world socialism.

This sentence is not marked as quotation, but comes after one, as an explanation. It is a purely declarative sentence that sounds to me as if it was paraphrasing communist doctrinal documents. Those declarative sentences have their value: They give the official answer to a question. In that case, to the question: “What places does war have in socialism? Aren’t we supposed to be the most peaceful of all societies?” But we can’t really decode most of those declarations, because the underlying questions aren’t clear most of the time. This makes it impossible for most readers to judge ~90% of Glantz’ work. Especially as no background on the discussions behind the questions is provided. The very next sentence after the one quoted above:

Given the importance of war and its potentially damaging effects in the light of recent technological changes, the Soviets approach the study of war scientifically.

Here, we see the inherent problems of Glantz’ haphazard work. The first half of the sentence is puzzling if interpreted as the auctorial voice, the second one is basically non-sequitur. And most importantly: it is only said that Soviets apporach it scientifically. Neither is the term “scientifically” defined, nor is it compared to the “western” way of doing things. And we aren’t given any details whatsoever on the methodology of that “scientific approach”. Instead we are confronted with a tedious terminological…well, it’s not even a discussion….one could say “laundry list” in Chapter 3. This mindless translation of terms without any reflections upon their relations to Soviet operational, doctrinal or training reality is tiresome as it is confusing. The author himself closes the chapter with the revealing sentence:

This Soviet framework for operations, with it’s seemingly complex array of levels and terms , is the result of long-term study and reflection on the nature of war. It is a true distillate of vast military experience, and it is this experience which undergirds it’s validity.

Again, Glantz has so far not said anything about the “long-term study” or “vast military experience”.
We could stop the whole review here, because everything else in the book follows that pattern of paraphrased doctrinal statements and truisms that are not reflected upon by Glantz, they are merely delivered by him, without making clear who said what and who thinks waht at any given moment.

The chapters 4-7 read as if written at a different time, as there’s all of the information of chapters 1 and 2 repeated sometimes verbatim but in a slightly less coherent way. Supposedly, the operational art is presented in it’s historical development. This is actually not the case. These chapters instead present tedious reams of organizational changes with only the thinnest veneer of historical context and no reflections upon organizational reality or training. An example as good as any other:


“By the winter of 1941-42, rifle divisions, organized in this new single echelon configuration, attacked in sectors 5-6 kilometers wide (on occasions as much as 10 km) to achieve objectives from 5 to 12 kilometers deep (in some isolated cases as much as 20 km; see table 53). After january 1942, when enemy defense became deeper, rifle divisions atacked in sectors of 3-4 km against objectives 5-7 km deep, wich, in reality, took several days to secure (see table 54). […]”

This goes on and on and on, with nearly no respite. These are doctrinal changes or rather field manual changes, mind you. Even the parenthized comments are from the Soviet field manuals, it seems, and not any analysis result or checked with real operations. Also, the copious amount of tactical numbers are never compared to each other or provided in any other way with meaning. They are not part of any argument.
So, we are informed that the depth of a rifle divisions “canned-advance” (i. e. what the manual says what an advance is supposed to be) changed, but we are never given any information how these rather cosmetic field manual changes were implemented in training or actual leadership. Such a seemingly cosmetic change can well be part of a very intelligent argument, sadly Glantz does not present any of those. Instead it’s 150 pages of field manual changes, translated without any rhyme or reason except chronological order. On top of it, he doesn’t even fully cite the stuff he translated, so the book is also useless as a translation help or reference document. I really hope there is an unexpurgated, fully referenced and foot-noted version somewhere in the Fort Leavenworth library.

There still was something to be gained from reading this book. It’s the last chapters that really widened up my view on some of the events during the eighties, and curiously shed a differnt light on what is now called AirLandBattle. Before I highlight that unexpected revelation, we must revisit the supposed subject:

Soviet Operational Art.

You will not learn anything about it from reading that book. Period. I can’t say whether Operational Art exists at all, or if it’s a marketing ploy by Glantz. The very scant references to actual military thinkers (very different from field manual texts!) hint that the pre-purges school of “operational artists” had the vision of a relentless pursuit of enemy forces to achieve decisive victory after a minor one. While this is shallow insight at first sight, it becomes way less so, if you’ve read your Clausewitz. And if you cared to read what Tuchachevsky et al. indeed said: The main force to bring forth such a pursuit MUST be done by infantry. Now, the pre-purge idea was to not only to seek infantry pursuit situations, but to highlight them as the cardinal way of achieving strategic success. Now, I cannot go into a full discussion of what “infantry pursuit” means in the Clausewitzian and the Tuchachevskian ways respectively. I sadly can’t go into detail at how the Clausewitzian insight was broadened into the continous space of the modern battlefield that knew no battles that a single leader could overlook with his own eyes. You could write a whole book on it, and another one about Soviet Niederwerfungsstrategie.
A third book on the influence on dialectic thinking on Soviet strategy.

Glantz definitely didn’t do any of it.

The shortness of time and space do allow me do highlight one very important thing: the operational approach, as far as I can tell, does not consider encirclements, breakthroughs and penetrations into rear areas as the “magic silver bullett”- and “Liddell”- types love to point out. If there actually was anything “artistic” about the operational approach, I cannot say. From what I gathered, it looks ruthless and brutal, with a big dash of inspiration from the way Napoleon won many of his battles: determination, ruthlessness and the correct timing for the frontal assault. Now, that is the pre-purge (Tuchachevsky) operational approach. Due to the lack of scholarship on Glantz’s side, I still don’t know whether

a) the growing professionalism in face of daily warfare with the Axis
b) a true intellectual revival of operational approaches
or
c) crypto “operational-approachyness” that is hard-coded into the Soviet military’s collective subconcious

was responsible for the changes in Soviet strategy and tactics. Glantz implicitly argues for c).

Back to the unexpected insight I gained from the last chapters. The last chapters deal with changes in Soviet dogma and tactics (you guessed it, operational approaches are not talked about…) in face of the Nuclear bomb.
Glantz moved away from his standard format for the last chapters for a a short while, and sheds some light on the military debate that was waged in Soviet military journals. The answer for conventional warfare in the age of the widespread use of tactical nuclear weapons was frighteningly developed from an impressive application of dialectic thinking: Muddle up own forces and enemy forces as close as you can, and change all forces into NBC-protected forces. That’s the reason for Motor Rifle Divisions, the BTRs and the BMPs that we all know by heart.
What was new for me was the muddling-up strategy. The Soviets were so frightened about TACNUCs, that they supposedly saw with (to me) amazing clarity that only a full and ultra-quick advance by protected forces that led to the intertwinement of friend and foe in close spaces could yield victory if there was to be a victory at all.

When AirLandBattle, or more precise, the capabilities of precision guided munitions were becoming obvious to the Soviets in the 80ies, they realized that there would be no second wave that would go anywhere. Abolishing the second wave was already considered due to the dangers of TACNUC strikes IIRC. They supposedly responded by giving up even more control over the actual combat forces: In case of conventional war with NATO, they reasoned only a ultra-ultra-quick surprise attack with alll eggs in one basket, no reserve, no second or third wave could yield any hope of success. The battalions were to be supplied with pre-programmed instructions and most interestingly: cybernetic command decision systems.
Fitting that they did not consider (acc. to Glantz) to grant the battalion commanders more individual freedom.

If there is anything artful or operational about any of these things (also deep battle? still no idea what this really means for Glantz, the Soviets or the West…), I cannot say. Because the fine man from Leavenworth never wrote about it. He merely translated some texts that were somehow releated to those questions.
I daresay the “book” is cobbled together from at least three fragments, and the contents section and section titles themselves were cosmetically changed to turn some notes and internal working papers into something that at least looks like a monograph.

Quick Info: Internet-Informed Wargamer Hipster Artifact (IIWHA)

The book is rated with 1/5 T-34s

Please discuss here or comment right here in the blog.

PS: General Vuono, whoever he might be, obviously never read the book. Or comments on something else. No statement from the foreword has any meaningful relation to the actual contents. It’s also full of NATO-douchebaggery, he is so full of it, it might be enough for a seperate blog entry.

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